Rita Hayworth —The Girl Behind the Goddess, Part 1

by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini

Rita Hayworth famously said, “Men go to bed with Gilda, and wake up with me.” Who was the “me” behind “Gilda” and “The Lady from Shanghai?” Let’s look beyond the carefully crafted veneer of the Love Goddess to the real Rita Hayworth — a Spanish dancer whose real name was Margarita Cansino.  

Born in 1918, her father Edwardo, was a dancer from Madrid and her mother, Volga Howarth, was a Ziegfeld girl. By the time she was 4, Rita was training as a dancer with her father in Queens, New York. In 1930 the family headed west with hopes of opening a dance school, but they never did. The Great Depression derailed those dreams. Edwardo had to return to performing to pay the bills and chose his daughter as his dance partner. At 12 years old Rita became the sole breadwinner of the family, dancing with her father in Tijuana nightclubs where prohibition wasn’t enforced. Edwardo allowed people to think that his daughter was his wife. Later in life, Rita confided to husband Orson Welles that her father sexually abused her. That abuse caused Rita to become shy and withdrawn in real life. Dancing was the only time she felt truly free. 

A casting director for Warner Brothers saw Rita dancing at The Aqua Caliente Jockey Club and was intrigued, but thought she was too young for Hollywood. Two years later he tested Rita, but Warner Brothers rejected her saying that her hair was too curly, too black, too thick, and her hairline too low. In other words, she was too ethnic-looking. In 1935 she was signed to a standard contract at Fox, playing small roles in B movies that exploited her Spanish looks, but due to a change in studio executives, Rita lost her contract.

Enter Eddie Judson, a former car salesman and self-styled agent. He convinced Rita and her family, who were still in need of Rita’s income, that he could help make her a star. The 41-year-old Judson convinced Rita, barely 18, to marry him. Judson would be crucial in creating and marketing Rita’s persona. A physical makeover included weight loss, pulling of her molars to rid her of chubby cheeks, and a painful procedure to push her hairline back using electrolysis hair removal. Advised to change her Spanish name, Margarita became Rita Hayworth. 

A hairdresser at Columbia left Rita’s pictures on the desk of studio head Harry Cohen who took one look and demanded to see her. Columbia was a small studio with no major stars. Every star was on loan from another studio, which was expensive, and Cohen wanted talent that belonged to his studio. Cohen was a tyrant with a bad reputation in Hollywood. He was particularly hard on female stars, and Rita was no different. Three early films were key in solidifying her career — “Only Angels Have Wings,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” and ”Blood and Sand.” When her black hair was changed to auburn for “The Strawberry Blonde,” Rita effectively said goodbye to the last physical trace of her Spanish heritage. 

In 1940s Hollywood, if women wanted lead roles, they had to conform to a standard of beauty that did not include any non-white traits. White stars often played ethnic roles, donning makeup to play, for example, a Chinese character, while actual Chinese actors filled out the background in small roles or as extras. With few exceptions, it was rare for non-whites to become A-list stars. When she was cast in “Blood and Sand” as a Spanish woman opposite Tyrone Power, it was a sign Rita had arrived. She had shed enough of her Spanish heritage to pass as a white actress playing a Spanish character. This was the beginning of her rise to fame as the glamorous love goddess of the 1940s, but everyone who knew Rita found her to be shy, and almost child-like. 

Working with choreographer Hermes Pan in “Blood and Sand” helped her win her next role opposite Fred Astaire in the musicals “You’ll Never Get Rich,” in 1941 and “You Were Never Lovelier” in 1942. Promotion for “You’ll Never Get Rich” included the infamous glamor shot of Rita in a lace nightgown that became one of the most popular wartime pin-ups. That image also caught the eye of Orson Welles who became her second husband.

Next month: Hayworth’s marriage to Welles, and her exit from and return to Hollywood amid her third marriage to Prince Aly Kahn. 

For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out the Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1

Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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